Wednesday, March 30, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part One.


"She's all yours, Mark." (Original image John Atherton, Wiki.)



Louis Shalako



“Okay, Mark. She’s all yours.” His new landlord Roy Olivetti stood in the centre of the room, the stub of an unlit cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth. “This is one of the biggest units in the building. You’re lucky it’s unoccupied, otherwise I would have had to give notice before showing it.”

Mark, trudging down Easy Street, had seen the sign in the grimy window of a vacant storefront on the ground floor.

Lucky to have picked up three dimes, two quarters and four nickels dropped by staff members over the years and jealously hoarded in a small cavity under the sink, there was a phone booth just up the street. Even more fortuitously, Olivetti had been at the office. It wasn’t too far away, although he had an answering service as well. Mark needed to piss badly, and hanging around by a phone booth, waiting for a return call was no joke in this neighbourhood. He also had eighteen pennies, two of which he’d picked up along the way. He had noted quite a few empty bottles lying around in alleys and in the gutter. Mark wasn’t quite ready to burden himself just yet. He didn’t have anything to put them in. He had the horn case and one small bag, stuffed with everything he owned.

Mark had been plotting his escape for years.

Sunlight slanting past the windows reflected off the building across the street, throwing odd shadows and putting oblong panels of light where they normally shouldn’t be. It was only mid-April. The apartment was already hot and oppressive up front, and yet the windowless little bedroom in the rear was dank and cool. The front room had two big windows, and that was it. He had a kitchen on the left, a short hallway, a bathroom, a place to sleep and what else did a man need, anyways.

It was also all that Mark could afford. He would barely be able to pay the rent and eat at the same time. There were plenty of missions, soup kitchens and thrift stores in the neighbourhood. There would be mental health outreach programs and street-corner preachers all over the place.

“Thank you.” He’d been sort of putting this moment off.

Pulling the start-up cheque from his side pocket, he unfolded it and handed it over, a bit reluctantly.

“It’s just that I don’t have a bank account. I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind? Give me like ten minutes.” His hand stretched out tentatively. “Now that I have an address, it might be a little easier to open an account…right?”

Mark, bewildered by the real world, its loud noises, the strange clothes, the newness of certain things and the timeless decay of certain other things, was terribly unsure of himself. It wasn’t too far from his old neighbourhood, and he had a pretty good idea of what it was like at times.

He wasn’t scared, not exactly, but he had a lot riding on this.

# 99 Easy Street.
Olivetti glanced at the cheque, squinting, holding it at arm’s length in a beam of light well away from Mark’s clutching hand.

“Government cheque, eh? Naw, that’s okay. Just sign the back and I’ll cash it myself.” 

Unexpectedly handing the paper back to Mark, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ball-point pen. “I’m a busy man. I can’t be waiting around all day.”

“Uh…okay.”

There was a small branch of the First National Bank of Manhattan across the street. Mark wasn’t too eager to go back there and try it again, not after their earlier reaction. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t cash it, an extremely polite lady explained, it’s just that there would be a seven-day hold, and that really wasn’t what he was looking for, was it? Maybe she was right, although he would need an account sooner or later. She seemed friendly enough, directing him to a nearby pawnshop, where the rates advertised on the board were outrageous. He’d already sort of ruled that one out, hence his try at the bank. The odds were they weren’t going to hand money out, not to someone like him, no matter what he said or did.

Roy handed the pen over and Mark looked around, still uncertain. The only horizontal surface was the kitchen countertop. He went in there, but as soon as he put the cheque down, he thought better of it.

Shit.

If Olivetti could handle grease-stains he didn’t much care either way. The only real problem was that the cheque was for more than the actual monthly rent. They had already agreed. 

Mark would be paying month-by-month rather than signing a lease or paying first and last month’s rent, the more usual way of doing things. Olivetti was letting him move in nine days early.

It counted for something.

Just until I get on my feet.

Sure, buddy, no problem…

The hall door was still open two inches. Voices in some foreign language and heavy foot-clomps announced the coming of three pairs of curious eyes in blotchy dark faces. They traipsed past the open door, right to left, suddenly quiet, curiosity aroused. There came the rattle of a key in a lock. That must be three-oh-two. It thudded closed and the voices went away.

“So, uh. Is this place quiet? I mean, real quiet?” After four years upstate, at the Bellevue Institute for the Criminally Insane, the one thing Mark wanted more than anything in the whole wide world, was peace and quiet.

“Aw, don’t worry. This is a clean, quiet, professionally-managed building.”

They stood there with Mark still wondering. Mr. Olivetti wore a suit and a lot of aftershave. 

He did have the cigar. There was a pretty nice car, a ’66 Lincoln illegally parked out front.

“Okay.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right back with your change.”

They shook hands and then, as Mark stood there open-mouthed, looking at his new acquisition, Roy turned and went out the door.

This was Mark’s new home. The exterior wall had some paint peeling around the windows. 

The frames, trim and baseboards were thick with the cheapest brand of paint. The floor was bare boards, dark brown but with cracks showing grey with lint and dust unsuccessfully swept up, going down instead. There was an odd smell in there. It was pungent, oddly musky. 

With the windows open after not being occupied for weeks or months, with a bit of cleaning, that might go away. After four years of hospital-corridor smell, he was open to the universe, no matter what that might mean.

He could hear the guy going down the stairs behind some other people. The street door opened and slammed down below. Mark went over and gently closed the door.

His soft-sided case stood in the centre of the room along with his trumpet in the battered black faux-leather case. Mark wasn’t quite ready to take off his grubby, white nylon parka, a gift from the Salvation Army. Their card was in his pocket. They’d helped out quite a bit, but then they all knew where he was going—out into the world. It was the minimal investment in a man they thought they’d see again all too soon. The social workers, the doctors and the nurses, the shrinks, and most of his fellow inmates. They were all thinking the same thing, and it was hard not to agree to some extent. They all had a stake in his outcome, at least to hear them tell it. 

(...stolen image please don't tell.)

He was already missing poor old Bill, his one and only friend.

Crazy old Bill. That one was never getting out.

If Mark failed, he would kill himself. There was no way in hell he was ever going back there. 

In that sense, death meant freedom.

No price is too high sometimes.

They were all rooting for him, or so they said. They might even have a little money riding on it, one way or another.

Some instinct told him to look out the windows. He yanked and yanked but couldn’t get the first one to budge. The one on the other side went up with a bang, and then it didn’t want to stay up. He stood there looking for a stick of some kind, but there was nothing there. The back of Mister Olivetti disappearing through the front doors of the bank across the street was some kind of revelation. If the guy had an account there already, it probably would save them a couple of minutes. It was better than a seven-day hold. It was better than keeping a cashbox in the car.

Keeping a lot of money on him would be suicidal around here.

That’s why people wanted cheques after all.

Mark had all the time in the world. It was a new kind of time, a time all his own, and not time he owed to the state. That was the worst kind of time of all.

Moving into the back of the apartment, he flipped on the bedroom light, wan, yellow and fly-specked. Dry and dusty-smelling, this room was different, with a closet built out from the left corner, slatted folding doors across the front of it. The room was so narrow, it really only left the other side for the bed. The room was so short, there was no good reason to put the bed against the wall by the door. That would leave a foot and a half of useless space on the end. 

How he might actually get such a bed was another good question. He was planning ahead—that was the best way to look at it. Looking at the mossy green paint, he could see where a thousand nail-holes had been patched over the years. There were places where the paint had been pulled off when someone removed a poster or something taped up there. It was a kind of yellowy peach colour under the green.

It was all his now.

Turning the lights on almost made the kitchen worse. It really didn’t help much, it just made things clearer. Moving to the bathroom, it occurred to him that he’d been taking an awful lot for granted at Bellevue—three square if bland and not-very-hot meals a day, not to mention a bed and running water. This room was brighter at least, painted a nice cheerful yellow, but the smell was also stronger. It was a fairly big room. Opening up the drawers, they were empty but not very clean inside. Way at the back of what would probably be the utility drawer—where all the miscellaneous items would end up, he found a single blue push-pin. So now he could at least pin something up.

He didn’t even know what questions to ask, sometimes.

He flushed the toilet and it seemed to work all right. Turning the taps, he put his fingers under the flow, and after a while it began to warm up. He stood there a minute, wondering if that was going to be hot enough for a shower. He was already committed anyways. With no towels, he dried his fingers on the inner lining of his coat.

There were voices on the other side of the rear wall, and his heart sank. Of course it was quiet, recalling the televisions and radios behind pretty much every door on the long climb up through the building.

Sure it is. Somewhere off in the distance there was a dog barking. There was a thud from somewhere. People wanted to live in New York, they wanted to live in apartments, which was the only thing going anyways—and they wanted to have a dog, too. They would disrupt their own lives and the lives of all those around them, turning themselves inside out to accommodate a yapping, smelly pooch. It was a surrogate relationship, the dogs often taking the place of children and mates that weren’t there and had never been there and were never going to be there.

People were nuts, when you got right down to it.

It might take a while to figure things out.

Another big thud from somewhere.

Mark turned to the old-fashioned claw-foot tub, where the cheap pink plastic shower curtain, the only vestige of furniture remaining, still hung across. Judging by the sink and the toilet, he was expecting rust stains, of a sort that were hard to remove.

Pulling it back, he twitched when he saw someone was in there.

Worse, it looked like the lady was dead, mouth open and cloudy, sightless blue eyes staring up at him as if accusing him of doing something awful to her.

The silk stockings tied tightly around her neck, the scratches from where her sharp, blood-red nails had scrabbled at her throat, told their own story. So did the cheap corselet, the high-heeled shoes and the garish bronze lipstick. Her hair was blonde with black streaks framing her face…there was hardened mascara running down her cheeks and into the discoloured water.

Her pale, blotchy legs had stubble on them. Relaxed in death, knees wide apart, her pose was an obscenity.

“Oh, Jesus, H. Christ.”

He stood there, frozen in time.

“Oh, fuck. Oh, God. Why me?”

As if on cue, sirens started up somewhere nearby and his heart was racing.

Without a phone, Mark had no idea of what to do next.

He backed slowly out of the room, unable to believe what he was seeing.

All he could do was to go across the hall and knock on the door. No one responded. He had heard three of them going out, but. He thought he heard someone moving around in there.

Shit.

He pulled out another of his precious nickels and headed for a phone booth.

***

“Oh…no.” The last bit came out, thankfully, mostly under Mark’s breath.

The officers responding shoved the door open and he stepped backwards. Guns drawn, one of the big black pistols was pointed right at the tip of his nose.

“Back up.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hands up.” The biggest one, looking everywhere but at Mark, allowed a feral grin.

“Sorry, Stan. Almost forgot that part.” The gun didn’t waver.

Mark raised his hands slowly and carefully, as the other officer, gun up but all too ready to shoot, checked out the rest of the apartment. He went from door to door, peering carefully around corners, not taking any chances. Mark prayed silently for Mister Olivetti’s return.

Where in the hell did he get off to.

“I’m the one that called it in.”

“Shut up.”

“Okay.” The voice came from the other room.

Mark recognized both officers, and an already sinking feeling was quickly dropping through the floor and the basement and heading for the centre of the Earth.

This one was Thomas Stubbs. The other one was Stanley Lang.

Lang came out of the bathroom with a cheerful look on his face.

“Yep. Looks like a dead hooker.” Those cold grey eyes came around and fixated on Mark.

“I swear to God, officer—”

“Okay, turn around.”

“Ah, for fuck’s sakes.”

“Don’t give us no shit, son.”

“No, sir.”

The cuffs were snapped on and then they were going through his pockets.

“All right. What do we have here.”

“I’m the person who called—”

“Shut up.”

With a strong hand on his shoulder, Stubbs forced Mark to the floor in the shadows of the far corner of what was supposed to be his new living room. He sat, knees up, feet close together, hands behind his back, hunched over in a new kind of misery. His jaw worked back and forth, but there were times when there was just no point in talking—

Water welled up into his eyes, coming from somewhere not too deep within him.

Lang’s eyes flicked up from the ID. His previous address was listed, long out of date now.

“Hey—” His brow lowered. “Say—if this is your place, how come you don’t have a key?”

His eyes traveled across their little exhibits, lined up all in a row on the bare floorboards.

Stubbs was not to be outdone.

“Yeah—how come you don’t have no key, buddy?”

***

“So you say you just rented the place? Apartment three-oh-one, number ninety-nine Easy Street?”

“Ah, yes, sir.”

Detective O’Hara might have been just as jaded and just as cynical as any other New York cop.

He also had a job to do. He was being paid for so many hours a day and he might as well do something about it while he was there. It was better than being bored to death. They were in a scruffy little back room in the local precinct station. O’Hara had his fingers folded across an ample belly, chair tipped back, reminding Mark of his grandfather.

Perhaps it was the burn marks all over the floor and the tobacco-stained fingers. Something about the silvering hair combed straight up and back. The glasses perched on the end of his nose.

Mark took a deep breath and explained again, as best he could. His hands were free and things were looking up.

“Okay. So Olivetti was going to come back and hopefully give you some money. The keys, and all of that. That makes sense, what with cops crawling all over his shit building. Yeah, he’s probably just a busy man or something.”

That’s not precisely how Mark would have put it. All he could do was shrug. He knew nothing about Olivetti.

“And the lady has been dead for a couple of days, two or three anyway. I’ve been speaking with the folks up at Bellevue and that part of your story checks out. So. Sounds like you couldn’t have killed her. Sorry about holding you overnight, but it is nice to be sure about such things. Are you all right, sir?”

Mark blinked back tears.

“Yes, sir. I’ll be all right. Thank you.”

O’Hara chewed his lip and studied him.

"So did you know the lady?"
“Okay, Mr. Jones.” He slid Mark’s statement across the desk. “Sign here, and initial it there. Thank you.”

It was all typed up for him. Mark rubbed the moisture from his eyes.

“Sorry about that.” He picked up the pen.

“Yeah. So, did you know the lady?”

It was so clumsy that Mark half-laughed and even O’Hara had a funny little gleam in his eye as he took the form back and removed a carbon for Mark.

“Ah, no, sir.”

“It’s a good thing you have the release papers with you.” He pulled out an envelope containing Mark’s personal effects. “If you get picked up without them, well, I guess you know. Anyways, good luck to you, and I reckon you’re going to need it. We won’t hold you up any longer.”

“And my pants, sir?”

“Yeah, yeah. Come with me.” He was about to rise, taking his time about it, perking up considerably when someone else entered the room.

“Ah. Davis. Take this guy back down and get him his pants.”

He nodded pleasantly, proffered the manila envelope in Mark’s direction and that was that.

Besides which, the phone was ringing.

As it usually was.

***

Mark had kept an eye out on the way back from the cop-shop and had found a small piece of flat metal lying in the gutter. As he recalled from the short time he’d been there, the locks on the building weren’t very good. The one in the lobby would always be busted and the interior ones were just cheap crap.

A couple of young men sitting on the steps of number ninety-nine studiously ignored him as he went up and in the front door. Three flights of creaky, hollow-sounding stairs and he was at his own door. He cursed on seeing it. The frame was solid, an overpainted oak antique. The wooden stops were fairly thick and he didn’t think he could do it. There were too many corners in the way. He pulled off the police caution tape and let it fall for the moment. Mark was just fiddling with the strip of metal, trying to get it in between the door and the jamb, but there was just no way. He was never going to be able to do it. You couldn’t really bend it in a Z and manipulate it back and forth at the same time.

Muttering to himself, he gave up on that idea. There was a window at the front end of the hallway, and he went to it and had a look out. Sure enough, the ubiquitous fire escapes ran right along below. Fire escapes were a blight or part of the charm of these old buildings, depending on who was talking.

If only he could get the window up. Predictably, it was frozen in place, although a couple of good whacks might get it going.

“Uh. Shit.” He was just straightening up.

“Who the hell are you?”

Mark spun around, startled.

A long-haired, bearded young man stood there. Barefoot, he was wearing bell-bottoms jeans and an outrageous paisley shirt with long sleeves and a big, pointy collar. With all the TVs and radios and dogs barking and horns honking, Mark hadn’t heard him coming. He caught a whiff of a cheesy, yeasty aroma.

“Hi. I’m Mark. I live in three-oh-one. I don’t have a key.” He hesitated, not to sure where to go. “I was just going to call Mister Olivetti, I guess.”

The guy cocked a thumb over his left shoulder.

“This your place?”

Mark nodded.

"Is this your place?" Introducing Duke.
“Yeah.”

His eyebrows rising, the fellow craned his neck and had look at the door a few steps behind 
him.

He must have seen the caution tape on the floor.

“Okay. Hold on a minute.”

Turning, he walked back down the hallway, and Mark gave up on the window. Maybe the guy was going to make a call or something. Without a key, the place wasn’t going to be much use to him—although his suitcase and horn were still in there.

Hopefully…

Unexpectedly, the guy had turned a corner and went up another flight of stairs. There was a moment of quiet. Mark heard the footsteps coming back this way up above and then stop. He thought the guy would be in four-oh-two, by the sounds of it. The guy came right back, the sounds repeating themselves in reverse order. He reappeared, jangling a ring of something that didn’t look much like keys in his hand.

He slid one thin, serrated whippy little probe into the lock, gave it a few quick little clicks, tweaks and fiddles, and then the latch snapped and the door was open before Mark knew it.

“Holy.”

“No problem. Let me know if you need anything else. I got some pretty good grass. Five and dime, right. I know where to get all kinds of things. Uppers and downers, reds, ludes, acid, anything you need. Capiche?”

“Uh, sure. Ah.” What the hell are we talking about? “Have you seen Mister Olivetti around today?”

“No, but then I tend to avoid that sort of complication anyways.” With a beatific smile, he slapped Mark on the upper arm, turning to go.

“So, ah, what’s your name?”

He turned back, briefly.

“Duke. Nice to meet you.” His eyes went off somewhere else and then he had it. “Welcome to the neighbourhood.”

“Yeah. Thanks, man.”

His eyes were very dark, the whites kind of pink. Mark wondered if he was diabetic or something. Maybe he was just tired, but it was the wrong shade of red. They shook hands, very briefly, and the guy was gone again.



Mark closed the door behind him. His suitcase and the horn were on the kitchen counter, where no doubt the cops had gone through it all with a fine-tooth comb.

He supposed he couldn’t really blame them. They would have found it all very amusing. They were too dumb to lock it up as evidence, or maybe they’d believed him all along. His record was going to follow him around. All he had to do was to stay out of trouble.

That was all he had to do.

Mark had to find Olivetti, and get that damned key and the rest of his money off of him.

He still had a handful of small change, and he could get a hamburger for fifteen cents up the street. Mark shuffled over and got a drink of water from the kitchen tap. Not even having a glass, he bent over, tasting it carefully, and finding that it was at least cold and not too hard. It didn’t taste like plumbing or anything like that. It was pretty good water—it was his water, and that really meant something.

Duke might have a phone. He didn’t quite know what to do, but Olivetti didn’t live in the building and it was the weekend.

At that exact moment in time, it was very quiet in there.


End

 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

On That First Draft.

Introducing Calvin Schultz, our new P.R. guy.


























Louis Shalako




Our new mystery novel, Maintenon and the Golden Dragon, now stands at 42,400 words in manuscript form.

It’s always a mellow feeling, to know how it ends, who done it, what the writer has to do next, and approximately how much time we have to do it. Generally, the mysteries I write end up between 60,000 and 65,000 words.

I wouldn’t even know how to write a longer one. It’s basically pulp fiction. It would have to be a real saga, an epic to qualify for a hundred thousand words these days. My early novels were a lot longer. I reckon that’s fair. What we’re doing is following along with Inspector Gilles Maintenon’s career, during the twenties and thirties, on a case by case basis. It really doesn’t require much more than 60,000 words.

This is the seventh in the series and my twentieth novel overall.

The funny thing is, I’m a lazy guy. I sit around drinking beer. I’ve been taking an interest in cooking. Actual writing time couldn’t be much more than a couple of hours a day, although some days are longer. On a day-to-day basis, the plot inches ahead, and sometimes not even that.

Tonight, it’s a nice, relaxing, mellow feeling as I listen to the radio and ideas flicker through my mind.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, when working on a draft, all I want to do is to get to the end of the plot. I can fill in clothing, rooms, locations and their descriptions a little more fully later. I can describe people’s physical descriptions in more detail later. I can check names, facts, internal logic (and external logic in a series), and continuity. All that comes later.

Just like the reader, I want to know what happened. I need to see the end of it. Only then do I see what it takes to make the story work.

At this point, we have enough clues, enough leads, that we know we can crack this case even though there's still plenty more work to be done. We want to tie up those loose ends and nail this one down.

There’s plenty of suspense and a good bit of emotion before we’re done—but here at Long Cool One Books we are hot on the trail of a killer.

It’s only a matter of time.


END